SING! Toronto – An interview with Take 6′s Claude McKnight
by Florian Städtler, Vocal Blog founder on May 8th, 2015
They are pioneers of contemporary vocal music. They won ten Grammies. They have collaborated with other artists such as Ray Charles, Gordon Goodwin, Don Henley, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, k.d. lang, Queen Latifah, Brian McKnight, Luis Miguel, Marcus Miller, Joe Sample, Ben Tankard, CeCe Winans, and Stevie Wonder. And they keep on touring the world without any signs of fatigue. When I saw Take 6‘s in Lörrach, Germany in December 2014, it was the best mix of vocal virtuosity and perfect showmanship one can imagine.
One country that the group hasn’t toured so much, is Canada. On May 29th, though, all Canadians and especially those living close to Toronto can look forward to a Take 6 show. Hosted by SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival they will star amongst Rajaton, Cadence, Countermeasure and a whole lot of incredibly diverse vocal music acts from barbershop to beatbox.
Claude McKnight, one of the Take 6 founding members gave us the opportunity to look behind the scenes of the group that was founded 35 years ago on a college campus in Huntsville, Alabama.
Your group Take 6 has toured almost everywhere in the world. How do audience reactions differ between countries and continents?
That depends on a couple of things. Probably the major thing is whether people understand or speak English where we go, that’s the first thing. The second thing is depending on what the culture of the people we are singing for, is. Some cultures are a little bit more reserved in the way they respond. So you can’t really tell sometimes if they are really into it until after the song or after the show. And as an a cappella group a lot of times you get your energy from that exchange that is happening between the group and the audience. So sometimes that’s hard to figure out and then you just have to really bring the energy from within yourself and hope that it’s going well.
Do you take these national, regional and cultural differences into consideration when putting together the set list for a particular concert?
I think the biggest thing that we’ve taken into consideration is: We have to always bring as much energy as we can no matter where we go. Because even within certain regions, there are different ways of people react. Let me give you an example: Even in United States, people from the East Coast are very different people from people from the West Coast or people from the South. It’s very different as far as regions are concerned.
So we have to understand that no matter what it is that an audience is maybe giving back to us, we within ourselves always have to be energized. And a lot of times you can bring people out of their shell, depending on what you’re doing on stage. But to answer your question a bit more fully: Sometimes we do make sure that we change the set list a bit depending on where we are doing the show. An example of that will be: If we are in a church setting doing a church program or show that maybe a little bit different for us as far as the set list is concerned as opposed when we are doing a jazz festival or something of that nature.
One reason we’re talking today is your upcoming show at the SING! Toronto Vocal Arts Festival on May 29th, 2015. Anything particular coming to your mind when you think of your Northern neighbour, Canada?
Well yeah, for sure: Me and my family, we used to live in Buffalo, New York, so we used to go to Toronto quite a bit. So I remember when I was a child going across the border, seeing Toronto and loving how large and how clean the city was. Also I remember the very diverse cultures.
We have only been to Canada a few times in Take 6’s professional life so this is a really great time to go and see some people we haven’t seen in a while. So that is what we are looking forward to doing.
In general, after so many years, what do you do to keep performing and touring fresh?
For me personally to keep things fresh, I try to take to the stage each night as it’s my last time – and my first time. Otherwise, it’s very easy to find yourself daydreaming during the show or going kind of robotic because you are used to doing certain things. When I can find a place within my own self that is telling me: Wow, this may be the last time or this is the first time, you find that energy or even that little bit of nervousness that keeps it fresh for me.
It is difficult, because there are so many of us and we are all very, very creative. And so what we try to do – because we are true democracy – is to make sure that everybody’s ideas are heard. I am generally the person that corrals or brings our ideas together and tries to fashion out the overall show which makes sure that everybody is heard and been listened to. That’s what makes for the good energy when anybody feels like they are a part of it instead of just doing what one person wants them to do.
You worked with the greatest stars in the jazz and pop business. What do collaborations mean for the group?
Oh wow, is been incredible for us, because just about all of the collaborations that we have done have been with artists we have either been growing up listening to and really loving or somewhere during our career have really enjoyed what they do. And so it’s a mutual admiration thing, where everybody gets the best from them and they get the best from us. It brings that level of creativity even higher and that’s a wonderful thing for us.
Take 6 on stage is both a fantastic musical experience and a great show, able to entertain a broad audience. How do you keep the right balance between high-level singing and showmanship?
That’s a really great question. What I’ve tried to do it to put myself in the audience’s shoes. I think we as a group have always been able to sing the music we wanted. But I’ve tried to make sure and I think we all have tried to think about it like that: If I’m sitting in the audience, what is it I want to see from these people on stage. Because you want your eye to be diverted.
Especially with an a cappella group singing some sophisticated arrangements, even the most ardent a cappella fans can get tired of just listening. So it’s important that we do things differently or break things up. When I say to break things up, sometimes it can be just a trio singing or just a little bit of piano or guitars or there is a soloist or whatever. And I think that all of those things become the entire entertainment package that someone who is sitting in the audience can digest and feel good about being there.
A cappella singing has become much more popular with TV shows like The Sing-off and the success of Pitch Perfect. With Pentatonix there’s now a vocal group in the charts. What do you think of this development?
Oh, I think it’s wonderful. I think that anything that draws attention to what it is that we do, is a wonderful thing. And of course we have always thought that a cappella has been a very viable entertainment source and has always been with us. And now the mainstream is getting a chance to embrace this music and I think it allows all of us now to actually have renewed careers and renewed interest. I think it’s wonderful: Pentatonix and Naturally 7 and Take 6 and the Pitch Perfect movie –I think it all helps each other.
Did this development change anything particular for Take 6?
I think the biggest change for us is – quite honestly – that we realize now that as far as mainstream is concerned, 25 years ago, when we first came out, a lot of people thought that we were the only ones. Now there are so many out there, that now we have to understand that we have to raise our level of creativity and our level of entertainment, just because there are some really great groups out there. So we are actually somewhat in competition with all of them now. And that’s a good thing.
If you compare the group that started out many years ago to the one today, what has changed compared to the early days?
I think, interestingly enough, when you have been doing this as long as we have, you have learned so much from the business side of things. When we first started out, we were doing it solely, because we enjoyed the music. And we still enjoy the music, but we know so much more about the business aspect of it. We are also better singers and I think we are better friends. All of those things make for an overall better experience as far as the group is concerned.
Oh absolutely! We are going to do a mixture of our old songs and some brand new ones. When I say brand new, I mean brand new for us. This kind of goes back to one of your earlier questions. What we are doing now is something that we hadn’t really thought about before: Doing some of these popular songs of today and giving a Take 6 arrangement to them.
I just think that’s what people expect and that’s what they want to hear. They want to hear some songs that they love and hear them a cappella now. That’s what a lot of the groups do and we do a few of those. So come, listen and check us out, we are going to do a couple of things that you absolutely know and we will do them in the Take 6 way. And we are all going to have a great time.
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Tickets for the SING! show on May 29th can be booked here.